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Brain power: Is it the best medicine for labor pain?

There's a lot of talk about managing pain during labor and childbirth, and rightly so, there's going to be some discomfort. While you can't predict how your birth will go, your brain may be the key to managing discomfort and allowing you to fully experience this momentous time by practicing mindfulness techniques. If mindfulness is new to you, here are five things to know.

1. What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is both an awareness and acceptance of what is currently happening within your environment and body. During mindfulness, all your senses (sound, sight, smell, taste and touch) and emotions are open. You notice sensations and emotions without judging or categorizing.

It is centered on being still within your space and mind; acknowledging what is physically happening, and entering your consciousness but withholding judgment or labels. 

2. How does practicing mindfulness help during labor? A main element of mindfulness is acceptance, which promotes the flow of oxytocin, the hormone that induces labor. This may result in labor progressing without medical intervention. Mindfulness may also lower your blood pressure, reduce stress and reduce emotional volatility.

Mindfulness also may help you go through physical discomfort without thinking you need to make it disappear. It can be the difference between experiencing pain and feeling like you're suffering from it.  

3. How do you practice mindfulness?  For thousands of years, women have practiced mindfulness in labor. For some, it is as simple as deep breathing. Others repeat a mantra or affirmation that supports the natural biological process happening in your body and brain. Others use mindfulness to center, focus and calm their thoughts and emotions. 

4. Your support person/partner can help too.  Whether it is your significant other, friend, family member or a doula, your support person can support mindfulness in many ways. For starters, having a conversation in advance about helpful prompts (affirmations, supportive music and empowering verbal statements) is ideal. Simple phrases such as "breathe" or "relax" can be powerful. 

5. How do I learn more about mindfulness? As with other care related to your pregnancy and birth, we recommend talking directly with your primary care provider. She or he will be able to share what resources or classes are available through your clinic or birth center. Also, research where you will give birth to your baby. Find out if the birth center offers integrative therapy services and if so, which ones. You can also learn more at Penny George Institute for Health and Healing.  

A Mindfulness Practice

Make Time. Set aside time (5-10 minutes for beginners) in a quiet, comfortable space to practice this exercise. You do not need any special equipment/mat or clothing to practice mindfulness. Feel free to use instrumental music or a scent (aromatherapy or a burning candle) to create an inviting space. 

Observe. Sit still in a comfortable position with your eyes open and allow yourself to notice the present moment with all your senses, just as it is. You do not have to force your mind to be quiet or not wonder. The goal is to notice and pay attention to the present moment, without judgment. If you start thinking about things other than the present (e.g. your to-do list or that problem with the car), simply make note to yourself ("my mind wandered again" or "I'm thinking about something else") and bring your awareness back to the present moment. 

Let Go. When judgments (this hurts, that's annoying, etc.) arise during this exercise, process them like this: allow them to bubble up, acknowledge them, and then let them go. Some find it helpful to visualize placing the judgment in a balloon and letting it drift further and further away. 

Return. After you let the judgment go, always return to the present moment. If you set up your space with music or a scent, focusing on those may help bring your wondering mind back to the present. 

Be kind. Don't judge yourself for whatever thoughts bubble up, just practice recognizing when your mind has wandered off, and gently guide it back. Again, music, sounds or visualizing letting go can be helpful in inviting the mind back as well as letting thoughts go.

Mindfulness is often said to be simple, but it's not necessarily easy. The work is to just keep doing it. Results will accrue.


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